While I live and work in Indonesia, Malaysia is still home. However, for much of the past five years – at least since the 2013 general elections – I’ve been observing as well as experiencing the country and its political travails from abroad.
It’s almost like watching a series of theatrical performances from a distance – interpreting gestures both discrete and melodramatic. The voices have been similarly muted, though there have been occasional snippets of dialogue that have reverberated globally, only to fall into near-silence almost immediately thereafter.
It’s as if I’ve been standing on the veranda of history, watching a series of embarrassingly, amateurish vaudeville or bangsawan shows. However, the comic figures carried within themselves the seeds of their own tragedy as the 1MDB financial scandal enveloped Putrajaya, fouling government leaders and institutions and proving to be the most extraordinary and yes, shameful, of the dramatic interludes.
It’s not just the scale – the tens of billions of ringgit and the parade of outlandish characters (from Leonardo DiCaprio, Arab royalty, Paris Hilton and a fat, slovenly local businessman). The 1MDB saga also unleashed the worst in the lead performers – our former prime minister and his wife – driving them both to moments that were more Oscar Wildean in their ridiculousness and bathos rather than Shakespearean.
Thankfully, there were those who dared challenge the regime’s warped and self-serving version of the truth. They were like avenging angels – resolute and unflinching.
I wasn’t one of them but I certainly salute their courage and perseverance. We have a lot to thank them for because without them, these ludicrous charades would have continued, reducing our country to a mockery and almost inevitable penury.
Still, as the deadline for the polls approached, I started returning to Malaysia with increased regularity, focusing on the battleground states of Johor and Kedah. At the time, I didn’t realise that the entire country had become a battleground – or was it a stage?
I attended countless Pakatan Harapan (PH) ceramahs: many of which took place in open fields. The speakers – including a surprisingly nimble 92-year-old, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – would clamber onto the back of trucks or makeshift stages and launch into their invective. While the quality of their oratory varied, the boldness of their rhetoric after years of obfuscation was a breath of fresh air.
After the ceramahs, I would seek out ordinary people and just listen to their stories.
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As I did, I began to sense a strange and querulous mood. Most of my interlocutors were reserved with their views, but angry – simmering with discontent – when they talked about food prices, taxes (especially the hated good-and-services tax), jobs, housing and transport.
And yet, despite the sourness I experienced on the ground, political strategists in Kuala Lumpur seemed oblivious and uncaring. For them everything was “OK!”
And then on May 9, while I was sitting in a television studio waiting patiently for electoral results (well, maybe not so patiently, but that’s another story), I witnessed something extraordinary and historic – a peaceful transition of power.
The KRA team criss-crossed the country and along with the photographer Joey Kitson, they captured much of the excitement.
I remember thinking after a marathon 10-hour session in front of the cameras: “Yes, we, the people of Malaysia deserve a collective pat on the back: we have toppled a moribund and corrupt administration packed with ugly old men...and now that we’ve got a taste for regime change, maybe we’ll do it again in 2023?”